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Killer Shrike's Magic System Theory

Shrike Magic System Design

Magic Concepts Control Factors Balance Concepts System Schemas
Magic is a powerful force in most Fantasy Games as it is a pretty open-ended access to unusual powers. In order for non-Magic Using characters to remain viable, some form of Control Factors should be in effect to help maintain game balance.
There are a number of types of Control Factors that might be employed to bound a Magic System's potential for imbalance.
Opportunity Cost Volume & Frequency Reliability Applicability
Impact Acquisition & Access Castability Point Caps
The following list of Control Factors that a GM should consider when designing a Magic System is not exhaustive, but is intended to help a GM balance their Magic System(s) for play. A Magic System does not have to have Control Factors, but almost all have at least one and many have several types of Control Factors at varying levels of severity.
All Control Factors are equally legitimate and can also all be used together. The goal when designing a Magic System is to use the Control Factors that make sense for that particular Magic System's design and intended flavor. It is important however to not over do it; if you make a Magic System with too many Control Factors, you are effectively crippling it and few if any people will want to play Characters that are practitioners of that Magic System.
Alternately called an "overhead cost", this Control Factor is one of the most direct means of keeping Magic Systems on a short leash. The Real Cost of all Magic abilities and related enablers such as required Skills, Talents, associated Powers, etc total to a sum which the Character pays and most GM's give it no further thought that that.
 However it is important to understand that the Character Points a particular Character has paid for the privilege of using a particular type of Magic have a hidden cost as well in the form of all the other abilities that the Character could have bought with those same points. This is the Opportunity Cost of the Magic System.
In some Magic Systems a Character just pays for the abilities they have while other Systems even grant a discount. That sort of Magic System does not have this type of Control Factor. Other Magic Systems have some overhead in the form of mandatory or optional but practically necessary ancillary abilities, lack of access to Power Frameworks to defray costs,  required minimum buy ins, and similar mechanisms designed to consume more Character Points than strictly necessary.
Requiring one or more Power Skill rolls associated with the learning or use of Magic abilities, or requiring access Talents to gain access to Magic abilities are both straightforward ways of working in "hidden costs" into a Magic System. As a side note, VPP's already have an Opportunity Cost worked into them via the aptly named "Control Cost" mechanism, so be sure to consider that factor when deciding whether or not a VPP based Magic System has a sufficiently high Opportunity Cost.
Magic Systems that have severe Opportunity Costs often need little else to keep them in check as practitioners of such have few points remaining to over-excel. 
Some Magic Systems have specific limits on the number of distinct Magic Abilities they may have, and/or the volume of distinct uses of Magic Abilities they may use in a given span of time. Obviously a Magic System that has abilities that are only usable a certain number of times per day, or that can only have one or a few effects active at once, or both is much more hampered than a Magic System that has effortless and unlimited usage of Magic.
This is probably the most common means of controlling Magic Users used in Fantasy RPG's as a whole, and this is a concept most players are already familiar with in some form or another.
An example of this of course is the classic X/Day/Spell Level mechanic of xD&D, but other games feature similar constraints such as finite Mana points, Fatigue levels, Quintessence, Vim, and other widgets that limit what practitioners of a particular type of Magic can do, and / or how often they can do it.
In the end, any system where a de facto practical limit on the total number of uses of Magical Abilities during some span of time is enforced are all examples of this type of Control Factor.
The HERO System offers several mechanics that can be used to good effect for this type of Control Factor at varying levels of severity. At the most severe a mandatory very small number of Charges on Powers can be used to ensure a low Volume and Frequency. Slightly less severe is requiring Endurance costs from personal Endurance, which will ensure that a Magic User can use their abilities many times during the day, but only a limited number of times in a short period of time (such as combat) due to getting fatigued.
A Magic System that allows an Endurance Reserve, but places limits on how large it can be has a milder form of Volume & Frequency Control. Long Term Endurance, and the unusual Delayed Effect Advantage provide yet more options in this area.
Magic Systems that allow a large number of Charges or a large Endurance Reserve or 0 END abilities are likely not constrained much by Volume or Frequency.
Some Magic Systems are hampered by requirements that make them intrinsically unreliable. This Control Factor works to check a Magic System on two levels. On the one level the practitioners of such a Magic System are demonstrably less effective due to statistical vagaries of success and failure. On another level the lack of certainty, opportunity for wasted actions, and the fear of catastrophic failure at critical moments often has an intangible effect on how practitioners of such Magic Systems are played; a much more conservative and cautious playing style often develops in direct relation to just how unreliable the Magic System is.
The HERO System contains two essential mechanics that can be used to good effect for this type of control, Activation and Requires a Skill Roll in all their various permutations.
Whether Magic sometimes simply fizzles for no particular reason (Activation Roll), is based on some primal force of Chaos (Requires a Luck Roll), requires the constant appeasement of some higher entity (RSR: Faith), or is just a very intricate process that has to be executed in exactly the correct fashion or conceptualized perfectly (RSR: Power Skill), or some other nuance that introduces the chance of failure when using Magic are all samples of a form of Reliability Control.
Many GM's automatically assume this sort of Control Factor is a given when playing Fantasy HERO, perhaps since previous editions featured a Magic System that relied upon such a mechanism. However this is not the case, and GM's should evaluate the assumption to ensure that if they are enforcing a form of Reliability Control it is for a reason and not just "because".
Some players like the "feel" of Skill Rolls when working Magic. For some it gives them a feeling of accomplishment or success. Others like the dramatic tension involved in never knowing if their Character can successfully pull something off; the anxiety of failure and ensuing feeling of elation upon success can be a powerful combination. Others like the ability to invest character points into a specific Spell (or equivalent) and to have their Character's mastery of a particular Spell be notable.
On the other hand some other players decidedly do not like the "feel" of Reliability Controls. Such players want their abilities to work consistently and to be able to make and execute specific plans of action without having to worry about wasting actions or suffering failures at critical junctures. Such players often would rather have some other form of Control Factor, even if it were actually more severe overall and if the only Magic Systems available to the setting rely on Reliability Controls such players will usually just not play practitioners of those Magic Systems.
Some Magic Systems specifically define what they can and cannot be applied to or used to do in metaphysical terms, while in other cases such restrictions are defined as part of the setting and are equally applicable to all means to power as Campaign Groundrules.
For instance if a Magic System cannot do certain things like bring back the dead, travel to or open portals to other dimensions, allow people to fly unassisted, or other such blanket restrictions this is a form of Applicability Control. Similarly if a specific Magic System grants abilities or access to Magic only while a practitioner qualifies for a certain yes/no status or acts in accordance to some particular code of behavior, this is also a form of Applicability Control as there will be things a practitioner cannot apply their Magic to due to such hindrances.
In the HERO System there are many ways to go about putting some form of Applicability Control into effect on a Magic System. One such method that many GM's are familiar with is the HERO System 4th Edition "allowable Powers" method, where a GM indicates which Hero System base Powers are allowable to build Magical effects upon.
Another method of applicability is Reason-from-Effect based, wherein the GM indicates what end effects or SFX are and are not possible regardless of the actual base Powers used to accomplish such effects. For instance a GM might state that a Magic System cannot pierce dimensional boundaries, and thus no ability with an SFX that involves doing so would be possible for that Magic System.
In some more extreme cases, an Applicability Control might require the application of "Limited Power" Limitations to their individual abilities indicating that such abilities can only be used in certain circumstances.
Applicability Control effectively work as a Control Factor by narrowing the breadth of a Magic System.
Some Magic Systems are inherently risky or outright dangerous to their practitioners, while others have in-game effects which are undesirable, expensive, or otherwise deleterious to a practitioner in some way. In short, if there is some kind of measurable repercussion to using the abilities of a Magic System whether they be inherent or social in nature, that Magic System can be said to have an Impact Control.
Any Magic System where the practitioner suffers some long term effect or there is a risk or certainty of collateral damage, or the practitioner must enter into some kind of bargain or contract to work Magic, or use of Magic abilities has some severe cost such as requiring expensive and/or difficult to obtain components which are consumed in the process of using the Magic, or ostracism and persecution are all examples of Impact Controls.
This type of restriction can take many forms in the HERO System, ranging from Side Effects, mandatory expendable Foci, even Susceptibilities to ones one Magic Powers via the Susceptibility Disadvantage, and so on; however in many cases this type of Control Factor is also a feature of the setting and is applied liberally by the GM at their discretion independent of anything on a Character's sheet. This might take the form of an organization that persecutes Magic Users, public sentiment, or even a custom house-ruled mechanic for something like the Paradox concept from Mage the Ascension or Quiet from Ars Magica.
Some Magic Systems limit the number of Magic abilities a Magic User may have, or control the manner in which a Magic User may gain new abilities, or have a fixed/set list of pre-built Power Constructs which is not expandable.
Systems with specific number limits upon Magic abilities, or that require elaborate study periods with Characteristic or Skill Rolls to learn a new Magic ability, or allow a specific set list of allowed pre-built Power Constructs and no others are all affected by a form of Acquisition Control.
This type of control is mostly a meta-game affair, determined by guidelines put into place by the GM. For instance a GM might write up a list of Magic abilities for a given Magic System and simply mandate that list comprises the sum total of what is possible with that Magic System.
Similarly a GM might say that a Character may only know or have access to a number of Spells (or equivalent) equal to their INT score, or that a practitioners of a particular Magic System must learn Magic abilities to a "Known List" via a period of study time and with a required Skill or Characteristic Roll, or other forms of limiting the freedom with which a practitioner acquires new abilities.
Similarly some Magic Systems are not easily accessible, require some special quality to use, or individual Magic abilities are not freely available and must be garnered from finite and difficult to find/use sources, or might require instruction which is only attainable by bartering with others for instance.
Any Magic System where a person must be born with the propensity for Magic, must be taught at a veritable handful of difficult-to-get-into establishments or individual mentors who only take a limited number of apprentices aver the course of their lifetime, or where Magic abilities must each be learned from rare tablets or tomes which are difficult to find and jealously guarded, a system where each Magic User has one native ability and can only get more abilities by slaying other Magic Users, or any other system that deliberately restricts the ability to gain new Magic abilities is under a form of Acquisition & Access Control.
There are several ways to impose Acquisition & Access Control in the HERO System such as requiring Custom Talents that allow access to Magic abilities, using a form of Independent on Magic abilities to make them "take-able", simply by controlling the number of outlets for Magical Knowledge, and so forth. In the end this method of control is largely a factor of the setting and how prevalent the GM makes opportunities for Characters to come into contact with new Magic abilities.
Some Magic Systems have guidelines regarding how a practitioner cast or otherwise turn on Magical abilities. A Magic System might require a practitioner to pre-select a list of Magic abilities available to them for a given day ahead of time, for instance. A Magic Systems might also place restrictions on the how and / or where of Magic ability usage; some Magic Systems might require a group of people to use some or all of its abilities, or allow usage only in certain places, or at certain times, or combinations thereof.
Perhaps the most common sort of this type of Control Factor, some Magic Systems have mandatory Limitations such as Incantations, Gestures, Concentration, or similar which contrive to make it more difficult for a practitioner to activate their abilities. Magic Systems that don't allow the wearing of Armor or similar proscriptions that prevent or hamper the activation of Magic abilities also have a form of Castability Control.
There are many ways of applying this sort of Control to a Magic System in the HERO System; any such requirements are usually simply indicated as arbitrary terms of use in descriptions of Magic Systems that have such a Control.
A very potent meta-game approach to imposing a Control Factor to a Magic System is to simply impose a Point Cap Control. In some cases this might take the form of an Active Point cap, in others a Real Cost cap, and in others effect or damage or "Rule of X" caps can be set as well.
Such caps can consist of a flat value applied to all Magic abilities, a cap determined formulaically (such as Total Character Points/3 or 5 or some other formula), or something more nuanced and complicated such as a system whereby several different types of Magic have varying AP Caps based upon SFX or type of Power.
There is a subtle difference between Real Cost, Active Point, and Effect caps. A Magic System with a Real Cost cap allows Magical abilities with potentially very high Active Points and will have a much more diverse range of power levels among effects; the higher the Active Points the more limited the effect has to be to get the Real Cost below the cap. Magic Systems with Active Point caps tend to ceiling up to the Active Point cap and have a lot of abilities with roughly the same Active Points, but very divergent Real Costs. Rule of X, Damage and Effect caps tend to stratify artificially, with a handful of efficient builds designed to interact with the cap(s) in different ways; this can lead to some Character designs that only makes sense within the context of the cap(s) in effect.
Point Caps work by putting boundaries on the effectiveness of Magical abilities. They can be used very successfully to control a Magic Systems overall effect, but they also have several significant cons and will have a tendency to mutate prevailing mores of character design for the setting as players will naturally craft their Characters to work around the restrictions. Due to human nature there will also likely be a tendency for a Point Cap to eventually become the de facto minimum as players will tend to design abilities that all seem to have exactly as many points as the Point Cap allows.